I Act Therefore I Am

February 20, 2018

Charles S. Peirce once wrote that belief is to human intellectual life what demi-cadence is to music, i.e. an imperfect cadence that falls on dominant rather than on key note. It is melody, though, and, accordingly, it participates in the music. The Massachusite identified three properties of belief: "First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit." In pragmatist fashion, then, it is how one frames a question that the friction at the heart of the history of philosophy is resolved. According to William James that friction is between the "tough-minded" and the "tender-minded", i.e. the two opposing temperaments, where the former is empiricist, systematic, skeptical, irreligious and pessimistic, while the latter is idealistic, religious, optimistic, and dogmatic.

 

The fabric of belief as per the pragmatists is quite sexy, to be honest. If one takes at face value the utilitarian view that humans are vehicles equipped with only two gears, i.e. procuring pleasure and avoiding pain, Peirce's framework is a weight tied up to the gas pedal: the individual constantly yearning for applying balsam over the irritation of doubt, in search for the satisfaction of belief, after which the awareness of a new doubt arises, fueling further exploration, belief, habit formation, awareness, irritation, thirst for a remedy, and so on and so forth. Ad infinitum. What's not to like, then?

Well, everything that sounds too good to be true it usually is, for starters. The aspiration of pragmatism is to erase the line between competing theories, objective materialism and metaphysical inquiry when looking at the extremes, and it aims at doing so by looking solely at the practical consequences of every idea. This is extremely appealing, for not all systems of thought are geared towards solving the same issues at the same levels. However, as an instrumental device it is, essentially, a gun that can be used for any target one desires to shoot at. And its claim of being just a method makes it a gun loaded as per the assumptions one feeds into it. In the realm of legal theory, for example, the two mainstream schools of thought are pragmatic, i.e. right wing and left wing, in layman terms. On one side, we have the scientific, deterministic, objective, and naturalistic position which says that what is out there is known, it can be measured and tested, and, therefore, judges, legislators and policy-makers can make informed decisions based on efficiency. On the other side, we have the idealistic, epistemological relativist, subjective, and social constructivist camp that holds everything to be about politics, with power struggles at the core of all matters, and with the law's only aim to serve the dominant. Sam old story: those hellbent on generating wealth and those fixated on distributing it, neither side too concerned about the other.

 

In a pragmatist approach, the consequences of what is done with the cultural and legal institutions of a society is pretty much what matters when testing the validity of an idea. But, what if the aim of both positions is precisely what is achieved at the end? Pragmatism is a hammer and everything around it is a nail. Taken to its apocalyptic, ultimate ends, one is a society where wealth is abundant in the aggregate, with wide divisions among makers and takers; the other, a communist wasteland where fragmented little tribes based on race, sex, and ethnicity are equally miserable, in a constant state of war. Belief, indeed, is a rule for action. And beliefs are not justified true knowledge. The counter to pragmatism is precisely what is absent in world society right now: the ideals, principles, and higher aspirations that inform, shape and consolidate the value judgments to which the articulation and implementation of ideas must submit to. Nietzsche saw it coming, mind you: with the death of God, which he did not celebrate but lamented, the only option he offered was for humans to create their own values from scratch, under the penalty of falling to the despair of nihilism or the subjugating boot of totalitarianism. And it seems that we're there, just as the syphilitic predicted. Today, we're surrounded by lost souls who have no single clue what is valuable, blindly walking through the desert, solitary, hopeless, and thirsty for something that would give their lives some meaning. They are easy to overtake, and those who want to control and order everything to restore order to the lost souls, yearning for power, are stripping away the Western edifice by hammering one by one its building blocks, e.g. family, free enterprise, science, progress, and cooperation. They call men women and women men, they call speech violence and violence social justice, everything is socially constructed in their world, there is no absolute truth, and every knowledge is an opinion as valid as the next one.

 

This amoral world is the proof that the alternative offered by Nietzsche failed, and it failed miserably. Humans haven't been able to build their own values and, thus, wander aimlessly through the wilderness, their palms up begging for a drop of purpose before the darkness creeping towards everyone strikes with its scythe. And that is what terrifies me about belief. It triggers action but, if the belief is poisonous, the action shall be toxic to the actor and to the audience. The wholeness of Being ought to be a full glass, where the glass is belief and the water is knowledge. That is the useful reading of pragmatism. If an idea works at one level, it likely won't work at another one. The goal of a glass is not to quench thirst but to hold the water that does. And, above the glass and the water, there is the individual who is thirsty and who uses the water in the glass to survive.

 

If belief is the precondition for action and action, in turn, is the yarn from which reality is knitted, leaving it just at that is a recipe for disaster. Belief would require much more than just awareness and satisfaction and habit-formation. Heroine works like that, at another level, and that doesn't make it good for you. Rules for belief are as necessary as rules for knowledge and rules for action. Or, put in another way, it is intellectually and emotionally healthy to teach, learn, and practice clear routines for identifying, grasping and developing beliefs that make the individual's life worth living. If you believe that performing witchcraft rituals using the body parts of albinos will bring you success, or that white people are the problem to all social maladies, or that men can be women and vice versa, and that children ought to be stuffed with hormones and mutilated, removing them from parents who refuse to do so, your actions will harm you and will harm others.

 

When beliefs are wrong the actions they inspire are immoral. But how can we judge the morality of actions, and thus beliefs, if we do not have a compass to distinguish right from wrong?

 

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